SEVARE, MALI — Northern Malian militias are uniting and training young men and women how to fight as they prepare for an offensive to the North. The militias reflect a growing eagerness among Malians to retake the territory seized by Al-Qaida-linked militants in April.
There's a new generation of the Ganda Koy. Its leaders revived the militia in April shortly after armed groups seized Mali’s three northern regions. Volunteers are getting a crash course in being soldiers.
Commander Djibril Moussa Diallo is among the ex-military officers who founded the Ganda Koy in opposition to the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s. "I stand before a thousand fighters, young patriots ready to liberate the North," he stated. "These fighters are dedicated. They don't need salaries or payment. They have courage."
Diallo says the Ganda Koy has about 1500 fighters. New recruits live and train at this government-owned compound in Sevare, not far from the Malian military base, just south of the frontline. Most of the recruits are from the North. For now, they are using the few weapons they have for training.
Mariame Ouellette joined in May. "A woman can do anything a man can do," she said. "It's the heart that counts."
The revival of the militias has sparked concern that fighting in the North could devolve into ethnic violence and inter-communal score settling, as it did in the 1990s.
Diallo says abuses won’t be tolerated. "This fight is not about vengeance. It is about dignity. We have lost our dignity, and we want it back," he added. "We want to liberate our people who are suffering under occupation. If certain elements disregard orders and set out on revenge, we will stop it."
Here, recruits work on battle formation. It is not clear what, if any, official role militias like the Ganda Koy will play in any miltiary offensive to the North. But six northern militias, representing various ethnic groups, have united under a loose coalition, the Patriotic Forces of Resistance or FPR.
In Bamako, Mali's capital, FPR President Harouna Toureh says negotiation hasn't worked in the past and is not an option now. He says "a war of reconciliation" is needed. "I know that sounds paradoxical but that is what we will do. It means that we are going to free the territory with our army and then weed out these evildoers once and for all," he declared. "So that the various populations can live together again in peace.”
Back up north on the edge of occupied territory, that peace looks a long way off.